Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Bornholm project

Oh, the joys of putting up my feet after the day's of work!

The rain had miraculously stopped by this morning and with a slight hesitation the sun came out and the most beautiful blue of the sparkling sky took over. After much preparation, labor, and planning (frustration, as well, over small logistical issues) I could finally begin the last phase of my Bornholm project. Unlike my work in general, this project happens in the public space, it is performative, it is meant to be soliciting some kind of an action, but I'm still having a hard time to categorize it as "public art", "intervention", or even as "interactive".
Here is where it comes from: ever since starting to plan for the residency I've been intrigued by the history of this island, especially because of clay plays such a crucial role in shaping both its past, as well as its present (see previous posts). It only made sense to create sculptural work that would not be transported home but would function (and only make sense) here on Bornholm. Again, first I had to come up with the shape that makes sense for the location. During my wanderings, I'd been looking for some kind of a marker or object typical to the island. Pretty soon I would find returning shapes and proportions in the markers of paths (usually a round piece of wood cut with a slanted top), in stone kilometer markers (blocks of granite with rounded tops); and in he houses themselves (squat little buildings with steep red tile roofs). All my brown stoneware clay was turned into roughly shaped blocks, tops cut in a 45 degree angle, with a little storage compartment dug into the top. Textured to resemble dry earth, the blocks were air dried but not fired. They were left unfired because I would like them to be eroding, melting back into the earth under the plentiful autumn rains. This symbolic gesture is a metaphor for replenishing the clay that used to be mined everywhere around the island and was the most important resource. Not that I carefully plotted out every aspect of this metaphor in my mind beforehand, but when I think it through now, it's also an interesting analogy with what the local friends have been telling me so many times: how much the island needs an influx of new ideas, people, and resources coming from outside to refresh and reinvigorate what is native to here. And this is also true of my clay: what makes up my little sculptures is clay imported from some other place in the world. Inside compartment of each clay block is a little porcelain sculpture (a mini-version of the large porcelain stick constructions I've been working with here - see earlier post). It is fired but due to the form's tremendous fragility, I don't trust that it would survive unbroken very long. Unceasing high winds, wild animals, traffic, - anything could easily smash each to little pieces. Or, and this is the desired outcome: they could be "adopted" by users of the trails, nearby property owners, and passersby. (Although, I have to note here, that this scenario may be unlikely. Bornholm is a place where nobody locks their bikes, cars, or doors; things are not being taken, property of others is respected. People have lent me all kind of valuable equipment without the slightest hesitation.)
The rough block of clay is like a little armchair-pedestal for the porcelain structure to sit on. When a fellow resident artist, Xavier, saw the pieces put together for the first time, he exclaimed: "beautiful! ...the strong holding the weak!" - Hmm... Funny, I've never consciously thought about it that way! For me, each object is both fragile, impermanent, as well as resilient; but both have these qualities in different ways.

OK. So, I made 79 of these (400kg of clay) and I've planned for a long time to take them by bicycle on the trails in three different directions starting from Nexo: one to the south, to the historic stone embankments and to the beaches; one to the north, along the rocky shores, making a loop on my way back through the farmlands; and the last one to the west, inland direction (along a trail parallel with the route between the two major towns, also farmlands). Today, I did the first two trips. Each trip transports almost three times of my own weight in clay. For this, I had to have a special vehicle: the Christiania people have been making a cargo bike (technically a tricycle) since the '70s when they took over a part of Copenhagen, banished cars, and set up a unique socio-economical structure for themselves. I needed a Christiania bike! The company was happy to offer to lend me one for this project. For various logistical reasons, at the end I did not take that but borrowed a Christiania bike from Bright Green Island (sustainable energy solutions organization in Nexo). After some rebranding (new signs fabricated from garbage bag plastic and traded masking tape), I took my lovely green bike on rides! Even though this kind of a transport vehicle is not uncommon here, it's much desired as it is quite pricey ("a Hummer of bikes?"). My sexy, shiny, bright green, boxy three-wheeler provoked some looks along the way. This baby is beautiful! And it goes very-very slow for a bike (very much like the pace I used to run with)!!! ...and it made my knees sore from pushing the pedals with all that weight all day long!!!
Along the way (it must have been 3-4 hours each trip) I kept thinking why I needed to do this project, as I never for a minute thought that the real reasons are the ones mentioned above (...There is a difference between inspiration for creating and motivation to sustain through the making of a project).
And this motivation all goes back to running... and looking. Running provides a pace with which I can move through spaces and observe them. I tend to look at details. One might say I'm very observant of my environment. This is a mapping project in which I place markers at places where I'm looking, where I'm thinking that you should be looking and observing too. It's like google earth gone real!
All one needs to do is to follow the trail.
All one needs to do is to slow down enough... to see.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Geology can be fun

Thanks to the Baltic woodfire symposium organized by Cassius Clay, yesterday I went on a tour of the island lead by Jesper Larsen, to see evidences of Borholm's unique geology and ceramics history.

The island is cut through by a fault line from Ronne to Nexo separating the basalt rock of the north and the sandstone of the south. Around this central/southern area is where clay was discovered accidentally during repeated attempts of coal mining centuries ago. Oh, yes, there was coal (and also Jurassic fossils and dinosaur remains...) but every attempt to get it out of the ground failed commercially, partially because of pesky clay getting in the way. Finally, and because this isolated land was otherwise not at all fertile and, consequently, its population was very poor, pottery production started up as a means of economic survival. One-man potteries grew into small factories like the Hjorth Fabrik in Nexo we visited with the tour. Hjorth was one of the first workshops to develop wood-firing and stoneware bodies in Denmark. In their museum it has been an eclectic collection of pottery produced during the 200+ years, styles following international trends from Japonism to fajance (yes, they worked with earthenware for a while too). The bread and butter of the pottery was, of course, reliable and plain functional objects in solid yellows, browns, and black for the table, as well as apothecary jars. The workshop still has the old equipment (although most of it is just for show; - I'm pretty sure their clay now comes from the same place in plastic bags like the clay I use here does). Everything was very charming in a nostalgic yet claustrophobic way, as built spaces in Denmark tend to be very small. Seeing the workshop floor, a Japanese artist I was with was enthralled; while I tried to imagine my own sprawling studio practice cramped into this tiny space. On the tour, we also visited a now defunct mega-factory. Its location is still marked by what the kiln shed used to be: a 200 meter long roof structure (amazing timber construction, like an upside down boat!). This was a place for refractory production: ceramics for bricks, tiles, pavers, pipes, etc. A very high fired stoneware varying across the color spectrum from yellow to chocolate brown. The kilns were 70-80 meters long, rail tracks going into them, feeding clay 24/7. The factory was located right next to the stoneware (high temperature) clay deposits in the ground. The company mined the land heavily, creating several pits, which are scattered in the area. Being very close to the sea shore, they had to dump fired ceramic shards on the shore constantly, in order to build a bank preventing sea water to enter the pits. All the pits are now abandoned and filled with water, becoming cute lakes for recreation tourism which is the sole basis of income to the islanders in the present.
At our next stop, also a lake now, we found lots kaolin (the essential ingredient of porcelain). I took samples from two places, one was very plastic, the other one was very white but mixed with coarse sand. My hands and shoes caked with clay, I' was picking up all kinds of rocks and mineral samples all day long, stuffing them next to the camera and notebook in my daypack. By the time we arrived home I must have collected at least 5 kilos of stuff. Some of this went right into the kiln. In two days I can see what this clay looks like and does when baked to 1260 degrees Celsius. The last and most amazing stop on the tour was a part of the coast just south of Ronne. We had to cut through private land (with special permission only,) and climb down a steep path to access this very special and scenic shoreline area. Here in the side of the sand-cliff, there were two kinds of earthenware (very low temperature clay that is saturated with iron) side by side: one is blue-gray and the other is flaming red. And tons - and tons of it; making crackled mounds like a giant's playground. There was also slate and rounded stones of many kinds (I wish I'd know the proper names!): fossilized black wood from the sea, stones that looked like baked chunks of this red clay, and finely layered hunks of compressed sand (something like a sandstone, except this splits easily). Amazing stuff! In the 17th century a fleet of fleeing Swedish boats shipwrecked near this coast. Until present day the sea still delivers something on occasion (sometimes it is silver cups) from these long sunken boats.

All this is not just curious history or a geology lesson. This field trip for me was very much part of the research for my current project... which, I promise, I'll describe in detail in the next post.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Here comes the queen! (actually, it was "only' the crown princess...)

Saturday was busy with the conference opening parties. There are two major exhibitions, each European country is represented by two emerging and two established artists. During the afternoon we were bused to the Helligdomsklipperne Art Museum (what a beautiful building!) and after that to the "Young Talents" show in Hasle. With the crown princess in attendance (smiles, handshakes, speeches, photographs taken) for the opening, every one of us tried to do our best in terms of formal attire. This resulted in a motley crew of jeans, clay stains, un-ironed shirts and dresses complete with studio shoes and napsacks.

These pan-continental survey shows are always suspicious, there is a variety of work and very little thematic coherence in the show. Although I found many favorites most of the work was unthrilling but not entirely uninteresting. As far as the technical goes, all were very accomplished. What I enjoyed the most was seeing the differences from country to country and recognizing the dependence on the historic context and cultural heritage that lead to these. For example, artists from former Eastern-European countries tend to have less resources in terms of production. A studio artist often times works on small scale with uncomplicated forms, where the presence of the hand is obvious. The clay is in its most natural form. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is some bold, almost architectural computer aided design work coming out of the Netherlands, while the UK was represented by a young artist, Katherine Morling's lovely figurative work. The jury award went to a Spanish artist, Rafael Perez, whose amazing abstract forms were laden with color and texture.
While the mature artist's show was much less the expected, the young talent show was unfortunate. Work is badly displayed and jumbled together in no particular order or organization. Here again, the work may be technically spotless (a good cast, no glaze faults, etc.) but, for the most part, too formal, too much trying to fit in with the so called "rules" of the medium, uninspired and conceptually underdeveloped. Interestingly, and differently from the other exhibition, here it was impossible to discover regional differences: transformer figurines recast in clay by a spanish artist and a latvian artist alike, vessels of a japanese tradition mixed with those of the bauhaus tradition.
A dinner party followed the exhibition openings, giving a chance to mix and mingle. (Let me not go into the details of the menu: There were lots of boiled meat and potatoes and, for vegetarians like me, grudgingly given mashed potatoes for change. An all time record in bad food!)
On the other hand, I met a lot of great people, interesting artists, managed to compare notes about educational and art systems particular to many geographic areas, and most importantly had great fun. Unlike any other conferences or events like this I've been to in the past, here everybody made a special effort to get to know everybody else. There was nothing easier than to go up to someone and say, "where are you from and what is it like?" or "I'm really interested in your work, let's chat" and lots of chatting we did. With everybody,... except for the Hungarians. Which made me remember why I'm no longer sad to have left my country of birth. Being small and without much economic resources or professional opportunities is a thing that could be accepted and overcome. But for some reason my fellow countryman artists reside in a constant state of denial, negativism, and a smug "we know it better" attitude.

This post should have extended to some thoughts on the art vs. craft divide in the light of the conference events but I'll pass this time and return to my studio. Hopefully, what happens there makes more sense on this topic than the words I could come up with.

Friday, September 10, 2010

On education

On Monday, we paid a visit to the Centre for Glass and Ceramics at The Danish Design School (formerly know as the Bornholm School of Ceramics and Glass). The school, now part of the Denish Design Scool of Copenhagen, goes back to 1997, when it started bare-bone in a former canning factory office building. As the first students were settling in, the studio wing was still under construction. This way, the faculty and the students designed a building to their exact needs in collaboration with the architects. The story goes that in this first year, the small lake behind the school was drained to find the exact stone in the former quarry what was needed for a restoration of an important monument in Copenhagen. Before the blast was about the happen an evacuation warning went to the school and the students had to drop blowpipes and plaster molds and get out.
The school buildings are a marvel: single floor, lots of glass, two parallel hallways (a "theory" and a "workshops" wing) spreading out long in the middle of what could be described as a park complete with a pond and an apple orchard. Being in the building feels like being both inside and outside at once. The facilities are amazing! Each student has a desk/workstation, set in rows like the cubicles in a megacorporation's office.
There are only 75 students with 2 full time faculty in each of the two areas: glass and ceramics. DKDS is proud to be a design and craft school. According to professor John Gibson, who generously showed us around and explained the program structure and the teaching philosophy: the goal of the school is to maintain and further the design and craft tradition with the ceramic medium. By default, most students produce functional ware or other need oriented products. In the three years of study (for a bachelor's degree) they have repeated exercises to identify a need, research materials and formal/technical solutions, and design for it. The way of teaching is also interesting: during a semester, there are several workshops on special topics by guest teachers. Monday is always theory for everybody and the rest of the week is studio. The faculty has very high contact hours (28! - if I remember correctly) with he students. Since the school is small and in a very remote area (again, Bornholm is an island, farthest away from mainland Danmark) the students hang out around the school all the time, working, socializing, eating (there is a fully equipped kitchen and a large dining hall), beer drinking. Most graduates go on living in Bornholm, at least part time, and continue with their studio practice. For those who want to continue, there is a master's and a PhD program in Copenhagen. This is the place for fine art, the undergraduate education beeing simply for learning a trade well. Did I mention, that each Danish student admitted to a school (there is an entrance exam, portfolio review and students usually come with work experience in the field) gets a 5000kroner/month stipend from the government? This is for 6 years!

After our visit to the school and especially after my presentation, I've been meeting with students and alumni who wish for more freedom in their practice. Listening to these young people, I'm very sympathetic. I'd also come from an education system where rules were stifling all that did not fit in with the official line. So different from our school education structure in the States! On one hand, I see a lot of sense in the Danish structure: learn the craft and the material, get an experience with practice as a professional, and only then you are ready to take the work to any place you wish. But, on the other hand, I think this feeling is stronger: rules are results of arbitrary chain reactions of history, tradition, and access. Consequently, they are meant to be broken. ...if for nothing else but for trying and seeing what happens. I find a lot of value in learning a material well (I wish our students in general were so well prepared!), but also in abandoning it if does not fit the idea. We all agree that even a craft work needs concept. Where we differ is whether this is found in the subjective intention or in the utilitarian purpose. I've been thinking since Monday on what makes a good work of art or craft: to put the conclusion in the most simple way: if heart, brain and hand equally participates in the making the outcome is most often good, and it does not matter what "category" it belongs to.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Rocket launch

So, here is the talk of the town: A private Danish space-ship built to launch one person into suborbital space is just out in the harbor (that is Nexo's harbor). Streams of people have been visiting for days to take photographs of the home-made rocket, the barge it will be launched from, and a tiny submarine (also home-made) that will be towing it out to the sea. The launch is scheduled to take place tomorrow (weather permitting) and although it will not be visible from the land, this is the most exciting event of this week in this small town.

See more here:


Rocket launch set for Saturday

Published 02.09.10 10:00

The home-made rocket was produced by Peter Madsen and Kristian von Bengtson of Copenhagen Suborbitals and has been transported by submarine - another of Madsen’s projects - from Docken in Copenhagen to an area just off the coast of Nexø on the Baltic island of Bornholm.

The rocket, named Heat-1X7Tycho Brahe, is nine metres tall, weighs 1.6 tonnes, has been financed by a group that includes 25 companies and 1,500 private individuals, and built by the duo with the help of a string of volunteers.

The duo had been given permission to launch the rocket between August 31 and September 17, but Madsen has now said he expects the launch to be possible this Saturday, if weather permits it.

Stick structures made from clay

Using the material budget available to us, resident artists, I wanted to try a few different clay bodies while in Bornholm. On the island, archeological findings recovered pottery fragments going back 6000 years. In the 1700s and 1800s, the place was one of the centers of pottery production and export in the north. The industry ebbed and flowed, and just around when it went into its final death spiral, in the 1970s, studio potters started populating the island, at some point reaching 100 practicing ceramists. The biannual European Ceramic Context conference is meant to be injecting fresh blood into this history.
The reason for pottery on the island is, of course, clay in the ground. No longer mined, there used to be a grayish-light brown stoneware readily available here. I've heard talk about a secret spot where some of this clay (bluish color when freshly dug up) can still be found. I asked our technician, Jacob, to find me clay in Denmark that is recognized in Bornholm as local, and I've receiver 400Kg of a coarse light brown clay (full of "chamott") And of course, some porcelain.
I got to work right away with the porcelain, which turns out to be very plastic and forgiving in this country. Its color will not be a pristine white as the bone china I used last year was but it feels really great in the hand.
Of course, simple, easily manageable things are of no interest to me. I'm using the porcelain to recreate a house of card structure of little extruded coils (kind of like slim porcelain sticks) that tether on the verge of collapsing. So far, saving some instances of my clumsy fingers knocking a few sticks off, I've managed to complete several test pieces, get them through drying without falling apart, and load them into the kiln. Right now, the first tests are being fired to 1260 degrees Celsius (about cone 9). This week, I've also finished 2 actual pieces, building them larger with the help of a cardboard box. This project could still have a lot of potential, but I'm also eager to move on to a very different project, one that actually has something to do with the exploration and experience of the surrounding landscape, architecture, and history. So, stay tuned for the details... Here is a picture of my two traveling companions.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Since my injury I have found a new respect for distances. Before, going out for a 6-8 mile run was everyday, thought nothing of it. Neighborhoods explored, errands taken care of, distance conquered on foot. I took all of this for granted. My sense of freedom was very much the result of a belief that, no matter what, I can always outrun or out-walk any kind of sticky situation. Come to think of it, it's more like I can always run away, using my own devices, my own body.
A lot has changed in the past months: my devices now seem a lot weaker and a lot more unreliable that I'd thought. I'm not allowed to run or even to walk for longer than 4 miles and although repeatedly trying, it always proves to have consequences in the injury flaring up badly. So, I've been trying to bike to get the same sense of freedom, but the bike is fundamentally different. It's just simply not part of my body. Maybe it can become over time, but as a physical activity biking is not the same flavor as running. The kind of wonderful blend of focus and relaxation, effort and natural rhythm, exhaustion and exhilaration that I would always get from running does not exist on the bike.
My plan, coming here, was to explore the island on foot, by running like usual. Then, I got injured really bad... The island of Bornholm is sewn together by bike paths. Some more dedicated than others but all are generally very good and convenient, taking riders and commuters through the rolling landscape of fields, forests, and little towns.
Now, my only device for exploration is the bike. That's why I was so happy to spot a few runners this morning along the road among the fields. It turns out that there is an ultra/marathon today, with various distances of 100Km, 50Km and a marathon (42.2Km). The runners I caught up with were all men, mostly what seemed like, in their 40's and 50's, about 300-400m apart, going with a steady pace. Amazingly enough, it took me very long to catch up with them, which even though I'm not a serious pedaller, means that they were running at a pretty good pace 8:30-9min/Mile. In an ultra!
And talk about the loneliness of a distance runner! These guys were in the middle of the fields, running dozens of miles all alone; no cheering crowd, no course marshals, no support of any kind. Encountering them made me so happy! I was pedaling from one to the other yelling "great job!"-s left and right. I'm sure they though I was some kind of a nut! Through them, vicariously, I felt I was running too. And then, it started raining. For a while huge black clouds had been hanging around. Just before it started raining the sight across the fields was amazing! Sun pouring down trough some rips in the cloud cover, like pixie-dust settling on the farmland, making it glow and sparkle. Between cheering on the runners and the rain on my face, I finally had a sense of familiarity in my own body.
I was poring over these thoughts when a hare run right under my front wheel. I had to break pretty hard not to hit him. It was a proper hare, not a bunny rabbit, long legged and fast. For some distance after he kept running in front of me, bedazzled and confused. Listening to the Wind up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami all last night in the studio, I can almost believe in premonitions now. I'd love to think that the runners, the rain, and the rabbit do mean something... (...for one, they all begin with R).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bornholm, Denmark

Two flights, two trains, one ferry and one car ride later Sandor and I arrived to Bornholm, Denmark, a lovely island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. It is actually closer to Sweden than to Denmark, and during its history has been taken over by the Swedes, Nazis, and Russians.
It is now a popular summer vacation spot. According to my hosts, Susanne, every child in Denmark comes here for summer camp at some point in her life. Former fishing industry is now in decline, but there is still a lot of farming: colorful patches of late summer fields everywhere and a faint smell of pigs. And the landscape! The southern side of the island is edged by silky white sand beaches, the rest is breathtaking, rocky shore. Everything is quiet, peaceful; only nature entertains us with much drama: For the past two days constant 50+mph winds made pedaling on our bikes quite a challenge.
I'm staying at the Mobelfabrikken in Nexo (I realize, I'm missing the proper characters to spell these right.) as one of the Artist in Residence for the European Ceramic Context, a biannual conference in ceramics (in alternating years it is in glass). This is the proud initiative of Bornholm, rich in artisan traditions of clay and glass. There are plenty of local artists and crafts people who are here because of the cheap property, (property prices differ hugely depending on whether it is a summer home or a year-round first home) tourist Euros, superb scenery and relaxed lifestyle.